The Biting Workplace Comedy of “Party Down”

The Biting Workplace Comedy of “Party Down”

The Biting Workplace Comedy of Party Down

Returning over a decade after it was originally canceled, the cult series remains a potent satire of meritocracy and Los Angeles.

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In the summer of 2001, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom The Office began airing on BBC Two and observably altered the television landscape. Chronicling the mundane lives of white-collar employees at a paper company managed by a boorish boss, the series helped mainstream the single-camera mockumentary mode and a style of humor derived from social awkwardness and secondhand embarrassment—i.e., “cringe comedy.” It spawned an international franchise, including the Emmy-winning American remake, which has sustained significant popularity through its second life on streaming platforms. The pop-cultural omnipresence of The Office’s American version is the product of executive producer Greg Daniels’s adaptation, which morphed the series into a more traditional romantic workplace sitcom and softened the harsher edges of the original.

The American Office has its merits, but its success largely depended on eschewing the bleakness at the heart of the British version, which infused a core desperation into the show’s setting and humor. The offices of Wernham Hogg were a place where dreams go to die; the employees literally push paper in hopes of achieving small creature comforts and meaningless titles designed to trap people whose talents ideally lie elsewhere. Hell isn’t just other people, the show argued; it’s also being forced to endure your boss’s bad impressions as life passes you by.

It’s no surprise that the creators of the Starz series Party Down were directly inspired by the original Office, specifically its unconventional approach to comedy and melancholic soul. The cult Starz series—which follows the professional trials of the eponymous Los Angeles–based catering company, whose staff is composed of struggling artists looking for their big break—arguably stands as a truer adaptation of the British series and its dispiriting perspective on the possibility of success beyond stopgap employment. Party Down, which recently returned for a third season after it was unceremoniously canceled in 2010, transferred the morose essence of Gervais and Merchant’s series to the entertainment industry, a setting rife with false promises and broken dreams.

Where Party Down most obviously differed from The Office was its cast of characters: wannabe stars, most of whom have been jaded by the arbitrary whims of the entertainment industry’s gatekeepers, as opposed to the automatons with a pulse who worked at Wernham Hogg. Though most of the main characters in Party Down have a toe in the Hollywood factory, the notable exceptions are Ron Donald (Ken Marino), the company’s fragile, overeager team leader with a passion for business, and series protagonist Henry Pollard (Adam Scott), a failed actor whose career never recovered from his appearance in a widely mocked beer commercial. An unambitious slacker by choice, Henry is the stark counterpoint to his careerist coworkers, someone mostly content with bartending instead of chasing a fantasy. Scott’s everyman performance, his hangdog expression and disillusioned attitude, is a crucial component to Party Down’s success. His chemistry with Lizzy Caplan’s snarky comedian character, Casey, also lent emotional heft to the original run.

As the series returns, Henry—now a high school English teacher—moonlights at Party Down a year after the Covid pandemic to help pay for his wife’s alimony in the wake of their divorce. While casually lifting prescription pills from medicine cabinets and sneaking booze on shift was a fun way for Henry to pass the time in his early 30s, Party Down illustrates that the same reckless, directionless behavior takes on a darker edge when he and everyone else are in their 40s. The new season deftly captures the many societal changes that have occurred in the intervening 12 years: the complete takeover of intellectual property (IP) in the film and television industry, the rise of the social-media influencer, the growth of fascist-sympathizing neoconservatives in California. Yet the show’s existential yowl remains the same. By the end of its run, the American Office fell prey to the classic workplace-sitcom thesis that colleagues are akin to family. Much like the British Office, Party Down presents the opposite: Meritocracy is a lie, and coworkers are people you’re forced to see more than family. It’s somewhat chilling to watch Henry silently steel himself to once again don his outfit’s signature pink bowtie, knowing how far he’s regressed.

In contrast to their characters’ rudderless lives, the profiles of many of Party Down’s cast members exploded in the years since the show was initially canceled. Scott had a career-making turn on Parks and Recreation, where he played the nerdy opposite of his Party Down character. Jane Lynch, who played the aging wannabe actress Constance, left the show before the end of its first run for a main role on Glee. Meanwhile, Caplan, who starred on the Showtime series Masters of Sex along with high-profile supporting roles in films, couldn’t return to Party Down because of scheduling conflicts with the Hulu series Fleishman Is in Trouble. The series compensates for this in the revival by having Casey become the group’s biggest success; she’s moved on from catering to become a Saturday Night Live cast member and then later the star of her own series.

In fact, all of the female characters from the original run have found financial and professional stability in the new season. Constance became a rich heiress in the wake of her elderly husband’s death immediately following their wedding in the second season’s finale. Lydia (Megan Mullally) has achieved success as a manager of her daughter’s acting career. It’s the men who have been left floundering. The revival begins with pretty-boy actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen) on the precipice of stardom, having finally landed a superhero role, before a decade-old video surfaces of him singing an offensive song titled “My Struggle” with his band; his subsequent cancellation forces him to return to the Party Down fold. Embittered “hard science-fiction” writer Roman (Martin Starr) has stayed with the company the entire time, accepting that he probably won’t be appreciated during his lifetime. (“If you make it big in this cultural void, it only proves that you suck on some level.”) Meanwhile, Ron finally becomes the owner of Party Down just as the pandemic wipes out the catering business, forcing him to take jobs catering illicit underground parties that cause him to contract Covid four times, which destroys his sense of smell.

Party Down’s success as a series comes partly from its well-wrought structure: Each episode takes place at a different catering event, which allows for maximum flexibility in terms of setting and tone. Some episodes during the original run were set at a preschool auction, an adult-entertainment awards ceremony, and a community theater’s opening-night party. This season runs the gamut from a post-pandemic birthday to a luau that is really a sting operation to bust dads behind on their child support. The third episode takes place at a symposium for white supremacists and satirizes the various shades of the far-right movement: The symposium’s leader hires fake protesters to picket the event to gain publicity for his movement, only for a Proud Boys–esque organization to incite violence against the paid actors.

Party Down didn’t last long enough to take full advantage of what could have been a rotating cast of characters; after all, a fresh crop of starry-eyed hopefuls will always arrive in Hollywood looking for a way to pay the bills. But the series has added two new characters to the Party Down staff: Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams), a young, self-described “content creator,” and Lucy (Zoë Chao), a pretentious aspiring food artist whose cuisine forgoes taste in favor of concept—for example, a “birthday-cake bite” whose center is filled with ripened Camembert, which is intended to be a rumination on mortality. While both of these characters are funny in their own right, they also serve as targets for the writers’ Gen X–style ire. Sackson takes the brunt of this irritation; everyone around him immediately dismisses his social-media brand as “little dance videos.”

The new season retains most of the series’ original bite, especially when it comes to industry dynamics—Party Down grudgingly accepts that “serious actors” have disappeared in a Hollywood economy driven by superhero films. At the same time, the series has pivoted from the brutal narrative pattern of its earlier run, in which the characters were frequently tantalized with possible victories only to see them snatched away at the last second for reasons both self-inflicted and random. Instead of reprising these cruel twists of fate—a career-making part cut from a film, a vindictive producer promising to blackball a career, the near-constant reminders that industry whims are random—the new season of Party Down features a staff who readily accept their respective stations in life instead of constantly fighting them tooth and nail.

The series provides each character with just enough validation to keep them temporarily sated, even though their opportunities predictably evaporate or reveal themselves to be less than meets the eye. A producer from yet another new streaming service buys Roman’s sci-fi concept, but the company goes belly-up and takes his idea down with it. While under the influence of mushrooms,R yan debates quitting acting, but he’s pulled from the brink after he receives a callback for a new adaptation of The Lost Boys. (He eventually lands the gig, but it turns out he’s playing a father.) Ron—whose shaky self-esteem and history of addiction have made his seemingly myriad disappointments in the business world land harder than anything his fame-seeking employees have suffered—keeps his company afloat against all odds, despite numerous faulty decisions along the way. Marino has the ability to simultaneously garner laughs and sympathy by portraying someone teetering on the edge of total physical and mental collapse; Ron’s bout with food poisoning, which threatens a crucial networking opportunity late in the season, captures this unique talent. Still, it’s a far cry from the series’ most emotionally leveling moment, when Henry gives a pants-less, blind-drunk Ron a desperate pep talk, telling him not to abandon his dreams despite having already done so himself. There’s a sense of relaxed resignation to the new season that neither feels like an artificial salve nor a concession to defeat.

As much as Party Down works admirably around it, Caplan’s absence leaves something of an emotional hole in the series. In the season’s first episode, Party Down preempts complaints about this absence by having Roman accurately characterize Henry and Casey’s relationship as merely an on-and-off hookup to pass the time at work: “What if their bullshit got in the way of each of them finding the right person? Why not root against them?” Still, Scott and Caplan’s chemistry went a long way toward instilling a more hopeful dimension in the series. While Jennifer Garner, who plays Evie—a film producer and Henry’s new love interest—ultimately fills in for Casey well enough, she and Scott are much more successful as a comedic pair than a romantic one. (Caplan makes a cameo in the closing minutes of the finale, which serves as a sad reminder of what was lost because of unfortunate timing.)

However, Evie’s presence brings another bout of professional longing into Henry’s life, a recurring trap that repeatedly ends with his hopes dashed. Evie tries to leave the game of chasing IP and return to producing more independent fare, but a promotion and a temporary move to Tunisia affords her the chance to cast Henry in a recurring role in a sci-fi series. Party Down once again dangles a reward (albeit offered through nepotism) over the head of its frequently mistreated protagonist, who has started over more times than he can count.

For once, though, the ball is in Henry’s court, and it’s his choice whether to accept a potentially lucrative offer or embrace his unplanned life. Party Down preaches a curious mix of romanticism and pragmatism that never feels self-contradictory. Though there’s an unquestionable desperation in continuing to chase a dream long past the point of no return, the series also illustrates that there’s a strange nobility to perseverance in the face of improbability. At the same time, it pays respect toward people like Henry, who give up on the fantasy in favor of stability. Everyone’s 15 minutes of fame eventually come to an end (or, in Henry’s case, become grist for the meme mill), and what remains is a passion that no longer carries the burden of a failed career and can still thrive outside of the industry’s punishing spotlight.

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